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What to do with a a fearful puppy

02/05/2022 - Puppy & Dog Training Advice

Many dog owners each year grapple with the difficulty of having a fearful dog. It is something many owners dread and work hard to avoid – a dog who is nervous, anxious and even reactive around certain things, people or even other dogs. This fear can quickly escalate into unwanted and problematic behaviours and be debilitating both for us and our dogs. Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation out there with regards to dog behaviour and training and many well-intentioned people are inadvertently compounding the issue by doing the wrong things. This is why we’ve compiled a quick list of our top tips for helping fearful puppies.
It's important to note that this list has been written with young puppies in mind. If you have an older dog who is fearful, these tips will still apply but it is important that you contact a qualified, accredited professional to help you work with your dog as behavioural issues become more complex, serious and difficult to address as our dogs get older. Get in touch if you think you need a trainer or behaviourist to work with you and your dog to resolve their anxiety.

Top Tips for Fearful Puppies

Don’t Push Them
Gone are the days when we simply pushed our dogs into difficult situations and let them figure it out. Forcing our dogs to be exposed to things they are scared of is known as “flooding,” and the potential fallout of this approach is huge. It could lead to our dogs experiencing something called “learned helplessness,” where they appear outwardly to have stopped the behaviour but only because they don’t feel there is any way for them to escape and have essentially given up. This may LOOK like the problem has resolved itself but, in reality, our dogs are in an extremely stressful state. It can also easily compound the issue, reinforcing for our dogs the idea that whatever they are afraid of is, in fact, something they are right to worry about. Not only does this not stop our dogs from being fearful, it also makes it much harder to later convince our dogs that they don’t need to be afraid as they now have a history of frightening experiences with that thing.

Do Reassure Them
For years, dog owners have been told not to reassure their fearful dogs because they will “reinforce their fear.” This is complete nonsense – we cannot reinforce the feeling of fear. Feeling afraid isn’t fun no matter how many cuddles or snacks we are given. The only thing reassuring our dogs will do is help them to feel better and teach them that they can rely on us to help them out if they’re worried. These are all good things – we want our dogs to feel good and we want them to know we’re here for them. So, if your dog seeks you out for comfort and reassurance, or you notice them looking worried, feel free to give them a good cuddle and tell them it’s okay.

Give Them Space
The last thing a fearful dog needs is to be forced to stay close to or approach a dog they are afraid of. As we mentioned above in our first tip, this is called “flooding” and can actually traumatise our dogs. That’s a strong word but it is the right one to use – a scary experience with another dog, particularly during puppyhood, can quickly lead to long lasting phobias. If your puppy appears afraid, help them out by moving away from the other dog to a distance where they can feel more comfortable. They are much better off observing dogs from a distance and learning that they can relax around other dogs, than entering into a situation they’re not prepared for.

Socialise Them
Appropriate socialisation is the best way to teach our dogs to be calm, confident and relaxed in the presence of other dogs. Attending group classes has been proven to be the best way to ensure our dogs get proper socialisation, with continued attendance throughout adolescence leading to lower incidents of aggression towards other dogs – including other dogs in the same household. Read our blog on socialisation to find out more about what good socialisation means for your dog. 

Focus on Positive Experiences
The important thing when socialising our dogs, particularly around things they are unsure of, is ensuring they have positive experiences. It doesn’t matter how close your dog gets to the other dog or whether they say hello or play etc. The focus should be on making sure your puppy has a positive experience. If your puppy finds it stressful to approach strange dogs, start by walking on quieter routes where you can see dogs at a distance and enjoy having a pleasant walk. As their confidence grows, you will be able to work in closer proximity to other dogs. There is no need to rush, and doing so will probably cause more harm than good.
If you struggle to find places where you and your dog can enjoy working together around other people and dogs, group classes are the perfect place to do this in a controlled, safe environment!

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